When Writer Becomes Celebrity
Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis is the forty-year-old author of six best-selling works of fiction and an international literary celebrity; he is 6’ tall, trim and single. His estranged father died in 1992. Bret Easton Ellis is also the forty-year-old author of six best-selling works of fiction and works as a creative writing tutor at a Northeastern university; he is 6’ tall, fat, married to a movie star and is the father to a son and step-daughter. His estranged father died in 1992 and he has recently been the victim of a series of disturbing and possibly paranormal events. The latter Bret is the protagonist, narrator and ostensive author of Lunar Park, the new novel by the former Ellis. The shadow play between author and narrator begins before the reader even opens the book: a blurred photo of Ellis on the cover is glimpsed through the silver dust-jacket where the letters of the title have been punched out. Apparently, for Ellis and his publisher this teasing mixture of revelation and concealment is the biggest selling point of Lunar Park.
Whether readers will be stimulated by this game of selves depends on two things. First, whether it strikes them as particularly innovative (if they have encountered Nabokov, Roth, or any other reasonably self aware novelist, it may not); and second, whether they are as interested in Ellis’s celebrity as Ellis himself clearly is. The novel’s opening section provides a brief précis of the writer’s career to date, attributing many details to both Ellis, the author, and Bret, the narrator. (This distinction shall pertain hereafter, with the author referred to by surname and the narrator by first name.) For example, it all begins quickly and glitteringly for both of them in 1986 with Less Than Zero—‘“the novel for the MTV generation” (courtesy of USA Today)’ (Ellis seems to enjoy reviewing his own press). The fictional Bret, like the real-world Ellis, rapidly finds himself lauded as the voice of this generation. As he comments sardonically, ‘The fact that I was only twenty-one and there were no other voices yet seemed not to matter.’
Nearly twenty years later, however, there are other voices. Ellis is not the only laureate of listless, young, middle-class (mostly white, mostly male) Americans. Chuck Palahniuk has refined skin-crawling effects in mental fragmentation and body horror that equal the skewering excesses of American Psycho and Glamorama; Douglas Coupland writes about a disaffected, disconnected contemporary existence with a humanity and tenderness that Ellis rarely demonstrates; and Dave Eggers is so MTV that his autobiographical debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, includes a scene in which the author-protagonist auditions for a place on that channel’s reality soap, The Real World. Lunar Park reads in part as the work of a novelist who feels he has to up his game, or at least find his way back to the thing he does best.
As the narrative reaches the present day, the autobiographical element of Lunar Park splinters decisively into a fictional narrative about a novelist-protagonist bearing the author’s name. Bret is beginning work on his next project, a novel called Teenage Pussy.This novel is slated by Bret and his publisher as a ‘pornographic thriller’—‘an entirely new genre’—much to Bret’s excitement. In the end, however, Teenage Pussy is abandoned in response to the events of Lunar Park, and Lunar Park is written instead, which, rather than inventing an entirely new genre, is an effective horror narrative of the sort that regularly emerges from Stephen King. (Both authors have graciously acknowledged the influence: Ellis by claiming to have read Salem’s Lot a dozen times, King with a warm review of Lunar Park in his Entertainment Weekly column.)
But while Lunar Park’s supernatural element may not represent a revolution in American letters, it is certainly a departure for Ellis, and one that seems devised in some way to distance himself from his previous achievements. Perhaps Ellis’s most serious competition comes not from contemporaries but from himself: Lunar Park might be read as an expression of his worry that he may never top the successes and excesses he has enjoyed thus far. Is there, in particular, any way for Ellis to overcome his reputation as the inventor of Patrick Bateman? For the Bret of the novel, a life apart from the psycho he has spawned seems elusive. Even leaving New York and LA to attempt domesticity with a ready-made family cannot put enough distance between Bret and Bateman since the author’s arrival in nameless suburbia coincides with a series of murders disturbingly similar to those described in American Psycho. As he receives the news, Bret realizes that,
at various times I had fantasized about this exact moment. This was the moment that detractors of the book had warned me about: if anything happened as a result of the publication of this novel, Bret Easton Ellis was to blame […] I thought the idea was laughable — that there was no-one as insane and vicious as this fictional character out there in the real world. Besides, Patrick Bateman was a notoriously unreliable narrator, and if you had actually read the book you could come away doubting that these crimes had even occurred. There were large hints that they existed only in Bateman’s mind. The murders and tortures were in fact fantasies fuelled by his rage and fury at how life in America was structured and how this had — no matter the size of his wealth — trapped him. This was the book’s thesis. It was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women. […] Now it all came rushing back, and I found myself in Patrick Bateman’s shoes: I felt like an unreliable narrator, even though I knew I wasn’t.
In this passage, Ellis deviously has his narrator negate any number of essays arguing for American Psycho as a sort of postmodern Mansfield Park by describing it himself as an elegantly detached social satire. Ellis almost acknowledges responsibility for the way the ‘cutting up women’ parts of American Psycho might be read, although the acknowledgement is too distanced by his narrator to qualify as an apology: after all, it is offered in the course of the confession of an unreliable authorial proxy (despite his protestations, Bret has already reported several dubious supernatural happenings to the reader). Moreover, Ellis’s narrator suspiciously glosses over the earlier novel’s engagement with the malign influence of cultural products. The possibility of a serial killer inspired by Bateman is not much of an advance on American Psycho’s portrayal of Bateman as a serial killer inspired by seventies horror and eighties porno (and Huey Lewis, of course).
So why revisit it? The comparison isn’t much to Lunar Park’s advantage. American Psycho is focused, funny and driven by a furious internal logic; allusion to the earlier novel tends to emphasize that the latest work is more diffuse, with fewer good jokes (though Lunar Park contains many hilarious skits on wealthy and paranoid suburbia). Furthermore, Lunar Park can’t match American Psycho’s absolute devotion to its narrator’s position. In the end, the strange happenings in Lunar Park are ascribed to a diffident mixture of the supernatural and the rational, and Ellis fails to muster either a satisfying resolution or a pleasurable thrill of uncertainty. In truth, Ellis appears to lack the conviction necessary to see his chosen genre through to its conclusion — disappointing, since his facility with the macabre makes this a promisingly horrific novel. For example, the Terby (an invented Furby-style bird-doll which torments Bret and his family) is a brilliant confection of product and perversity; unfortunately, the note-perfect name turns out to be a not-so-note-perfect message from the other side, where the preferred method of communication is apparently the lame anagram.
If Bret were as robust an entity as Bateman or as Victor in Glamorama, such qualms could be happily ascribed to the narrator’s own failings and distortions. But what should be the smallest stretch of character for Ellis — the ‘awfully good impression’ of himself that he promises twice at the novel’s outset — is in the end one of the thinnest and least convincing impersonations he has ever written. Fatally, especially for a book which is part career retrospective, Lunar Park is at its worst when revisiting the things Ellis has formerly done well. But conversely, when the writing develops those aspects of style previously only hinted at, the novel offers unexpected depths and pleasures. In a work that depends so much on the shocking, Lunar Park’s biggest surprise is Ellis’s ability to render movingly the father-son relationships at the heart of the book. The moments in which Bret discovers his paternal feelings (both for his previously unacknowledged son and for his own estranged father) can take one by surprise with their tactful descriptions of blundering love. This sentimental strand provides the novel’s lyrical climax: fathers and sons, loss and memory, life and death are united in a description of Joycean beauty.
There is a great aptness in Lunar Park ending in an allusion to ‘The Dead.’ The novel begins with Ellis worrying about his literary issue; it concludes with him embracing one of his literary forefathers. This movement of the novelist parallels his doppelganger-protagonist’s movement from rejecting his own son to reconciling with his father, and if this does mark a new maturity in Ellis as it does in his fictional counterpart, it promises much for whatever he does next. Or perhaps not: according to Ellis’s official biography (www.twobrets.com), his current work in progress is a sequel to Less Than Zero, which threatens to be a retrograde step if it isn’t another self-referential joke. One hopes instead that Lunar Park might represent Ellis emerging from his own shadow, because when he sheds his suffocating self-consciousness, it seems possible that he may have another great creation in him yet.
Sarah Webster is a DPhil student in English Literature at Oriel College. Her thesis deals with George Eliot, religion and games.